Photo by Dan Siney
FINAL FANTASY XIII
Platform: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Square Enix
Final Fantasy XIII is a great game, but only if you play it on its own terms. It’s a serious break from the way previous Final Fantasy games have played, which can be shocking or disappointing if you want a familiar experience.
Final Fantasy is the premier Japanese console role-playing-game series, which first launched in 1987. The name was a joke—Squaresoft was going bankrupt at the time, and they figured it’d be their last game. Instead it made Square into an industry powerhouse. As JRPGs, FF games tend to be about a small group of protagonists navigating a linear story with very little player input into the plot—the “game” elements are exploration, resource management, and the combat system, where the player uses menus to select commands the protagonists carry out.
FFXIII mostly cuts out the exploration. The characters you play travel through a variety of environments and run all around the setting, but you, the player, experience this as running down basically one long corridor. At one point there’s a big environment you can wander around and accept optional enemy-hunting quests, but that’s late, late, late in the game. I didn’t miss the exploration, though, because a) the story is pretty good and b) the combat system is excellent.
Story-wise, FFXIII feels a bit like a criticism of many of the tropes of earlier FF games. It’s very focused on the roster of six playable characters. The villain is offscreen for most of the game and there are few secondary characters. So, unlike previous games, where you’ll often end up with party members who stay on The Quest simply because they’re useful, in this case it makes sense that they don’t abandon you at the first chance. Each of the six characters is emotionally invested in the game’s events. The story is not so much about the villain’s plot as it’s about how the player characters react to getting roped into it. They don’t always get along, they blame themselves and one another for the mistakes they make, they split up and regroup hours later, and one spends most of the game plotting to kill another.
Some people seem to have a problem with some of the jargon the game throws around at the beginning without explanation, so here’s a primer: Fal’Cie are god-machines who can empower humans to perform specific tasks, called Focuses. (Fal’Cie are also mostly jerks.) L’Cie are the empowered humans. L’Cie who don’t fulfill their Focuses turn into mindless, rampaging monsters, called Cie’th, which obviously sucks if you get turned into an l’Cie and you’re given a Focus you don’t understand or don’t want to fulfill. By the end of the prologue all the protagonists are turned into l’Cie with a Focus they don’t understand, but which all evidence points to being something they really don’t want to do.
It’s actually kind of difficult to explain the game mechanics and why they’re so good, at least given the space I have here. Suffice it to say that FFXIII adds a new tactical layer atop the normal FF combat system and then streamlines a lot of the traditional combat mechanics so you can concentrate on the new tactical layer instead of having to manage it in addition to the full complexity of the normal systems as well. The new element—called Paradigm Shift—isn’t introduced right away, so for the first two hours of the game, the system feels anemic. Once you unlock Paradigm Shift the mechanics start to get good, though.
Anyway, I approve of this one. I am a longtime Final Fantasy fan—I played FFVI on the SNES when it was being marketed in North America as Final Fantasy 3 (long story), and this is probably my favorite FF game since that one.
Platform: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
I’m going to open this review with a tangent into linguistic pedantry: Heavy Rain may or may not be a video game, depending on your definition. Do you think serious graphic novels shouldn’t be called comic books? If you do, you may think Heavy Rain isn’t a video game! The creator calls it an interactive drama.
Video game or not, it’s a fascinating narrative about a man trying to save his son from a serial killer. It’s entirely controlled through a series of quick time events—probably the best implementation of QTEs I’ve seen yet. First, they don’t distract from the action, because if a dude is holding a knife up to your character, the symbol for the button you need to press to kick it out of his hand hovers over the knife, instead of just in the center of the screen. Second, they’re not pass/fail—the plot changes according to choices you make and according to how well you do in the QTE scenes. There are four protagonists, and if one of them dies, you don’t reload—the story progresses from there with that protagonist dead, and the other three characters have to carry on.
There are a few plot holes and some of the voice acting is iffy (mostly because it’s clear they’re UK actors trying to do American accents), but overall it’s a solid experience, with beautiful graphics, a novel and effective interface, and an attention to emotional engagement seldom found in anything you can plug into a game console. There is nothing else on the PS3 like Heavy Rain, and it’s worth experiencing for that reason if for no other.
And personally, I’m fine with calling it a video game. I also call my copy of Maus a comic book.
BATTLEFIELD: BAD COMPANY 2
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Reviewing this one is a bit of a conundrum. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a military first-person shooter. Like most war shooters, BC2 is designed primarily around multiplayer. But I don’t play multiplayer. The world of multiplayer shooters on Xbox Live is filled with young kids in love with racial slurs and experts with hundreds of hours of practice. I never learned multiplayer-shooter skills, and learning them on Xbox Live now is like learning how to swim in a pool full of piranhas and sharks.
I read somewhere, I forget where, that about half of all players of even multiplayer-focused games like this one never touch the multiplayer. Clearly, some of my readers will consider picking up BC2 purely for the single-player experience. I have to review that side of it ’cause I can’t review the other side. Here goes:
It’s forgettable. The plot is about trying to keep a superweapon out of terrorist hands. Like other recent war shooters (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Killzone 2), it attempts to inject memorable personality through dialogue between squadmates. It has the tough black sergeant modeled after Apone from Aliens, a hick from the southern US, a nerd on communications duty, and a guy with no personality for the player to control.
I don’t find them entertaining, I don’t find their banter witty, and the plot doesn’t show me anything new. But I’d forgive all that if the play were good. It’s adequate, but it’s really repetitive. You’ll be fighting the same types of enemies over and over, in the same types of environments over and over. Modern Warfare 2 mixed it up with a lot of weird and different set pieces—stealth levels, glacier climbing, piloting drones, etc. BC2 just has lots of gunfights on foot.
I’m sure the multiplayer is good because I’ve heard only good things about it. But the single-player is dull, so don’t pick it up for that. That’s all I can say.